On Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook

Rhode Island Notebook, Gabriel Gudding, Dalkey Archive, 2007

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Gabriel Gudding’s Rhode Island Notebook consists of transcriptions of poems written into a large notebook on the passenger seat of the poet’s Toyota Echo during twenty-two one-thousand + -mile trips from Normal, Illinois to Providence, Rhode Island between September 2002 and December 2004. Initially, the poet was making this trip to visit his wife and daughter; over the course of the book, he is divorced from his wife and makes the trip strictly to visit his daughter (and also to take care of the legal necessities of divorce). The other thing that happens is that Gudding discovers and then devotes himself fastidiously to the tradition of Vipassana, a Buddhist practice that stresses “insight” meditation, in imitation of the practice the Historical Buddha himself engaged legendarily under the Bodhi Tree when he was enlightened 2600 years ago.

Everything the reader learns about Gudding, his daughter, his wife and their divorce, as well as his religious conversion, comes through things written down in these travel poems. Put another way, there is nothing that happens in this poem outside of his Toyota Echo barreling across the eastern half of the United States. There are no “discoveries” on the road of, say, great places to eat (Gudding prefers McDonald’s fish sandwiches, it turns out, and old fashioned donuts from Dunkin Donuts), or any discussions of historical events that may have happened in the places he quickly traverses (though the U.S. invasion of Iraq is an ongoing preoccupation).

While some places take on cumulated resonance – for instance, the Shenango River in Pennsylvania, which registers the anticipation that surges in his drives to Providence as he gets nearer to his destination – only cartographic details in Providence or Normal are ever really spelled out. Otherwise, this is a poem of interstate highways seen at 70mph, landscape blurring by as transient weather gets noted and roadside signs get read. There are three important things to know about this book, in my mind: first, it’s impressively long, almost 450 pages; second, it’s hard to put down and often quite funny; and third, you generate a lot of sympathy for Gudding – or the persona he provides in the poem – as you read. By the end, his adoption of Vipassana, his love for his daughter, his sadness at his divorce are all quite moving.

The first of these things deserves some additional comment. Rhode Island Notebook is an episodic long poem of considerable length. The poetry book, as a medium, is pitifully restricted these days in These States. Typically, it should be 45-70 pages long, it should be broken into smaller parts within, and it should perpetuate the contemporary notion that lyric poetry = all poetry. In these terms, a book like Rhode Island Notebook is essentially unreadable. While I was reading this book and enthusing about it to friends, a number of them said, without hesitation or reflection, “I’ll never read that book; it’s way too long.”

Which leads to another consideration about the long poem in American poetry. It is invariably understood to be a failure. The Cantos, The Maximus Poems, Paterson, “The Bridge”, “A”: none of these poems is ever invoked without the qualification that each fails in some basic way. These five books include some of the best poetry written by American poets. Nevertheless, they are failures.

I mention these two elements – the antagonism poetry readers have toward anything longer than a slender volume of poems and the rubric of failure that informs how a long poem is read – to characterize the risk at stake in publishing a book like Rhode Island Notebook, which, thanks to the Dalkey Archive, shines like a beacon in dismal times. Rhode Island Notebook doesn’t really belong in the lineage of the modernist long poems listed above – it’s constitutionally different as a travelogue – but it belongs in their company as an earnest addition to the act (and fact) of thinking about the meaning of America in a poem of length.

Rhode Island Notebook is better than most anything else I’ve read in the past year not written by a friend. I’m a little surprised to make this claim because there is nothing obviously innovative about either Gudding’s language or prosody. I’m hard-pressed to describe the poetry in this poem, truth told. Much of it reads like this:

Barkeyville Franklin Oil City Area
Slipperyrock University Butler
Dottles of rain at Grove City
Windy flags at Grove City
Grove City Shady Lake Mercer
New Castle Sharon-Hermitage
Shenango River
Ohio Border 566m
Trumbull Co line
Hubbard (260)

This comes pretty much right at the center of the book; his marriage is falling apart, and he’s on his way home. Gudding rarely spends more than a day or two in Providence; we know this because he dates every journey, referring to each outbound journey as an anabasis, and each return as a katabasis (having taken his cues from Herodotus).

(One of the “hidden” narratives in this poem is the modern/contemporary farce/tragedy of the academic couple living in two cities trying to be one family: Gudding’s wife has a job in Rhode Island; he has a job at Illinois State. In the first entries, he takes off after his Friday afternoon class ends, drives through the night, sleeps for a few hours in Pennsylvania in the wee hours, then arrives in Providence around noon on Saturday. He leaves Sunday morning to arrive back in Normal in order to be able to teach on the following Monday. Madness!).

In these lines quoted above, he’s listing the names on the road signs he sees as he makes his way back to Normal. There’s a litany implied to them, almost a punishment. But the anticipation and familiarity seeing them must be involved at this point as well, having done this trip a dozen times already by this point in the poem. Interestingly, when I flipped the book open to look for a demonstrative passage, without any other context, I knew immediately that he was driving westward. Another thing: that little “Dottles of rain” is fairly indicative of the verbal energy of the poem: a kind of playful descriptiveness, even in the most embattled, saddest parts of the book.

Kerouac is the obvious ancestor to this book. Not, ironically, the author of On the Road, but the poet of Mexico City Blues, whose prosody was developed through the limitations of the notepads he carried in his shirt pocket: no line of poetry would go beyond the width of his notebook; most poems were contained on a single page of the notebook. (Kerouac reenacted this strategy in all of the other books of blues that he wrote.) Gudding appears to follow a similar compositional principle, in terms of his prosody. Here’s another example from later in the book:

I must wait for 2 Amish
buggies w/ lanterns & orange
reflective triangles. In the
dusk sky, which is green & purple
(the color of a starling) in the
west, are, in the west, venus, silver
and the gibbous sliver
of the moonball.
“Time moves from present to past.”
—Dogen Zenji
The moon is a horsefly of light.
My life is one continuous mistake.
“The awareness that you are here…
is the ultimate fact.”—Shunruyi Suzuki
I shall call Suzuki the Susquehanna Roshi. Is
the moon in the west or is it
in the south or is the southwest in
the moon blah blah (340)

Compare this with the opening of Kerouac’s “1st Chorus” in Mexico City Blues:

Butte Magic of Innocence
Butte Magic
Is the same as no-Butte
All one light
One Rough Road
One High Iron

Denver is the same

“The guy I was with his uncle was
the governor of Wyoming”
“Course he paid me back”
Ten Days
Two Weeks
Stock and Joint (1)

What the notebook format permits is a chorus of voices that is a conversation with the self, at once freely associative and colloquial (“Course he paid me back” and “blah blah”), but also interrogative and plangent (“Denver is the same” and “My life is one continuous mistake.”) As Gudding’s poem moves along, the inclusiveness of the notebook begins to stand for the confusion of his personal life: he wants an openness and a generosity of expression in relation to the world, but his world is restricted, in this poem at least, to what he sees out of the window of his speeding little car.

The editorial reality of Rhode Island Notebook is made evident by the periodic interruptions of interesting, sometimes haranguing footnotes, as well as a really beautiful Prologue, a powerful Bridge, and an Appendix I found too long and not different enough from the notebook entries for the trips themselves. (By editorial reality, I mean it’s clear that Gudding has transcribed this poem from his notebooks, and that in doing so, he sees fit to make comments on and, presumably, revisions to his poem.)

There’s an excellent footnote interruption early in the book on “Literary Narcissism and the Manufacture of Scandal” that I think is quite astute – even brilliant – well worth seeking out (Gudding published this “essay” on his blog at one point). My favorite footnote comes in the midst of the trip in early 2003 that is written as a series of observations and questions that are glossed with forethought (begging again the question of how and in what manner these entries were revised). Asking in the poem itself, “If as Bakhtin noted the grotesque body is the collective body, what, I say, is the use of the grotesque in poetry?”, Gudding responds with a lengthy footnote of assertions that runs, in part, “that buffo, not rage, that laughter, not reason, are the only viable means of wresting dignity from the hands of bureaucrats and professionals; that the ready ease with which an academic will assume someone to be stupid is more repugnant than a barfight; that yodeling at a plate of eggs can satisfy one’s curiosity for a better life; that underdogs can be jerks too; and finally to concur loudly, like a car horn with lips, with Henry James when he said that three things in human life are important: being kind, being kind, and being kind” (106). It’s Gudding at his best.

And it gives a hint of a didactic element that makes its way into the poem, a didacticism – emboldened over its course by the religious conversion to Vipassana and its initially metabolized convictions – that increases as the poem progresses. I didn’t find it tiresome but I suspect others might.

Let me finish by characterizing Gudding as a poet and Rhode Island Notebook as a book. Gudding is a satirist through and through. His first book, A Defense of Poetry, contains some of the few poems by a contemporary I have ever laughed out loud reading. Northrop Frye, in Anatomy of Criticism, characterizes the satirical, hibernal phase of literature as being “excremental.” (He considers Joyce’s Ulysses to be the great modern work of satire.) Gudding’s satirical impulses are true to Frye’s sense of the form: lots of ass jokes and fart jokes; Gudding frequently gets erections while driving; he pays no mind to telling us when he hits a road stop to take a dump. At one point the poem devolves (it’s the only word for it) into a bizarre rant against Nancy Reagan. He’s also pretty savage about some creative writers in the book. There’s satire’s sense of self-awareness bristling in these moments, the egotistical un-sublime that makes up the life of a poet teaching creative writing in the U.S. But Gudding’s satire in Rhode Island Notebook is shot through with tragedy (Frye’s autumnal phase): never without love (erotic comedy is Frye’s spring phase), but bittersweet throughout. It’s a sad state of things and you’re always aware that, midway through his life’s journey in this book at least, he’s been separated from his daughter and only gets to see her for less than a day a couple of times a month in the Motel 6 where he goes to stay when he visits her because he can no longer stay in the home he used to share with her and her mother. But to the poet’s (and person’s) credit: despite the didacticism that enters the end of the poem, there’s no triumph or revelation that comes upon us as we finish the book. Rather, he struggles to stay true to Henry James’ injunction. And I think that’s it, finally: Rhode Island Notebook is an act of kindness – to his daughter, to himself, even to poetry.

Peter O'Leary (© 2009)